2019 in the rear-view mirror

I freely grant that this end of the year reflection is an indulgence. [1] Except in the religious sense, we think of of that word in the context of “self-indulgent” mostly. That context puts many of these meanings (see the footnote) on shaky ground. So…kind to yourself, give oneself up (to one’s self), be addicted (to one’s self)? See? Shaky ground.


Still, it has been a difficult year for the United States and for the world, generally. There was a movement toward “common identity” in the U. S. and Europe. The idea was that the old “nationalisms” could be transcended. We are all Europeans now; we are all Americans now.

OK, so that didn’t work very well and narrower, more exclusive identifications are becoming more prominent. It isn’t just Boris Johnson and Brexit. It isn’t just Donald Trump and what he is now calling “nationalism.” You see it everywhere. Why is that?

In Europe, a period of unprecedented prosperity set the stage for a new sense of “who Brexit - Flag of European Unionwe (Europeans) are.” The unity and prosperity of Europe in the EU was inevitably set against the division and conflict of the previous eras, including how we got to World War II. But as the prosperity continued, the younger generations didn’t see it against the backdrop of the old deprivations; they saw it as a new consciousness. It is “the wave of the future” because new generations feel themselves to be the wave of the future. It is a “new consciousness, ” not a period of unprecedented prosperity. And, of course, it will continue undiminished into the future.

So as the prosperity has waned and the immigrant crisis has persisted, Europe has moved back toward national identities. So we see “Poland for the Poles” and even “Denmark for the Danes.” And, of course, Brexit.

We have done the same thing in the U. S. with less excuse. We had the post-war prosperity, just as Europe did. We attributed it to our wisdom and good judgment, as Europe did. We took our global leadership—through a Liberal International Order (LIO) consisting of Western-oriented international organizations, such as the U. N. and the World Bank—for granted. And now the prosperity is disappearing. If the high point of our post-war dominance resulted from our good judgment, what will we say about the waning of that dominance. Bad judgment? That doesn’t sound like us.

Rather, someone must have it in for us. Someone must wish us ill. We are suffering economically and there is no prospect for returning to prosperity by using the strategies that worked before. So what we really need is a scapegoat. Trump has put together a murderer’s row of scapegoats. There are the Democrats, the exemplars of the “deep state.” [2] There is the press, now tarred in the minds of the Trump faithful as the purveyors of “fake news.” There are the immigrants who are “not us” and who are criminals whose goal is to take away our way of life.

Since, as a viewer from the sidelines, I reject all those allegations, I would like to formulate three that make more sense to me. They are:

  • the changes in the economy,
  • the changes in the nature of citizenship,
  • and the stress put on the institutions which moderate conflict and
    maintain the priority of law over charismatic despotism.


In broad strokes, the nature of the economy is changing rapidly. The three changes that have caught my eye are the extensive use of robots to replace human workers, the distribution of manufacturing jobs to lower wage countries, and the rise of a global middle class.

The first two are bad news for manual laborers for obvious reasons. They both mean that jobs that provide a living wage are not going to be available. As to the third, the old rationale that employers must pay a living wage so that their workers will be able to buy what they build—a rationale made famous by Henry Ford—is weakened considerably by the rise of a global middle class, able to afford to buy those goods, no matter how poorly American workers are paid.

We have been moving, year by year, to a massive change in the economy—toward the time when distributing buying power only through salaries and wages is not enough to sustain consumption. Some other mechanism, some other way to support consumer consumption, is going to have to be found if employment alone will not serve. This year, we took a few more steps down that road.

The workers who are so severely disadvantaged by this process are stressed and angry, of course, and it is very hard to be angry at large scale changes in the world’s economies. It is much easier to be angry at immigrants, who, apparently, are taking our jobs.


Given the considerable economic misery and the lack of any hope for relief in the near future, the need to organize as mutually hostile tribes, and to hate each other was, perhaps, inevitable. Inevitable or not, we have done that. We have developed two ideologically integrated parties—remember when the Southern Caucus controlled large parts of the Democratic party’s agenda?—and then decided that we could do without bipartisan cooperation.

Partisanship is now a factor in “who I want my son or daughter to marry” on par with or greater than race, class, and regional culture. “Us” and “Them” have now been given a solidity that resists being divided by other identities.

We used to say, “Yeah, he’s a Republican, but he and I belong to this church and are fans of the same teams and sing in a barbershop quartet together.” More and more, that first designation simply wipes out the others. If he’s a Republican then he is one of Them and I don’t want to be singing in a quartet with him. We’re not there yet, but we are nearer to being there than we have been since the 1850s and it is getting rapidly worse.

2019 review 5The next step on the Us and Them trail is “Ours and Theirs,” where Ours and Theirs are political leaders. This amounts to, and leads toward, the identification of the leader with the tribe. This is common in authoritarian regimes, but it has not been common at the national level in the U. S. In other times and places, we speak of “the cult of personality.” That’s what the Republican party has going for it right now. It is hard to moderate from within, because moderating forces are identified as traitors. And not just as traitors to “the cause,” but as betrayers of the Leader.

It’s a hard cycle to crack. Talking about how “no one is above the law” doesn’t do it. Reciting that we aspire to be “a government of laws and not of men” doesn’t do it The only two things I have ever seen that do it are a public failure that even the faithful will have to admit is a failure and the violation of important other values. Banks, for instance, have shown a real reluctance to continue to support the Leader when he is costing them money.

This is all much deeper than Trump. We began disinvesting in each other a long time ago. That has produced the separateness which leads to factions which leads to tribes which leads to endemic hatred, cultivated and harvested by political leaders who know how to mount the tiger and have not yet discovered that they do not know how to get off.


I said in introducing this topic that I wanted to look at “the stress put on the institutions which moderate conflict and maintain the priority of law over charismatic despotism.” I have, of necessity, introduced that problem already by looking at the citizen base of it. It is “the people” who are attracted to charismatic despots (He may be an SOB, the old saying goes, but he’s our SOB) and who, consequently, lose their vigilance about the priority of law over despotism. Here, I want to look at the other half: the institutions that are supposed to provide the buffer against those popular appetites.

I will skip over, in one paragraph, the historical demise of most of the protections the Framers invented to solve this problem. [3] The Electoral College is no longer a convention of elites to consider which of their number should serve as president; the Senate no longer serves the interests of “the states” rather than the people of a state, because they are now popularly elected. [4] The President no longer implements the actions of the Congress, but serves as the Head of the American Empire, which Congress can do very little about. The Supreme Court is now divided into Ours and Theirs.

Of the institutions themselves, I want to place first the dominance of the primary elections for Congress. Before the radical partisanship of the present day, R candidates tacked to the right to win the nomination, then back to the center to contest the general election. D candidates did the same on the left. But everyone understood that it was the general election, where each candidates came to the middle and where their general appeal to moderate voters was made, that determined who would serve in Congress.

Now, with the prevalence of gerrymandering and the highly ideological funding of extremist candidates in the primary elections, the winner of the primary, the one who appealed most successfully to the extreme right (R’s) or the extreme left (D’s) is the one who goes to Congress. No longer the most successful moderate, but the one who breathes the hottest fire.

2019 review 6Associated with this is the current practice of keeping the Representatives and Senators “pure,” that is, unsullied by contact with their colleagues on the other side of the aisle. Following the practices first brought to prominence by Speaker Newt Gingrich, congressional leaders spend as little time in Washington D. C. and as much time at home (state or district) as they can and they avoid mixing with the parents and children of the alien party. [5]

Then there is the total abuse of the legislative chambers for partisan warfare. The best single quotation I know which captures this is Sen. Mitch McConnell’s (R-KY) assertion that his number one legislative priority for the 2009—11 Senate, was to make Barack Obama a one term president. This is a legislative agenda?. He followed up that claim by refusing to hold hearings for an Obama nominee to the Supreme Court—or, in fact, any federal court. The partisan advantage here is pursued simultaneously against both the President and in the Court.

These practices add up, as I implied in the introduction, to the substitution of charismatic despotism over the orderly rule of law. Americans tend to look at places where charismatic leaders took over the country and sniff in disdain that it can’t happen here. I think it is happening here. It just isn’t looking like it did in those other countries. There is no reason to expect that it will look the same here.

It still chills my blood to remember a remark made by Bertram Gross, author of Friendly Fascism. “When fascism comes to the United States,” he said, “It will not look like jack-booted thugs. It will look like Disneyland.” He wrote than in 1980.

I know that lamenting is fashionable among liberals like me. Also, it doesn’t cost very much. But I read recently, some research that suggests that we might not give up so easily if we thought “we” were worth saving.[6] Americans? Democracy? The culture of the West? Humanity?

Until they were offered the perspective that we would recover and go on to great things. Then they thought it just might be worth working for. That is a real challenge for liberals like me. Observing and lamenting is what I am good at. Helping people feel that there are worthwhile goals ahead of us and that it is worth our while to aspire to them—that’s a whole new direction for me. But if it would help people just not give up, not resign themselves to inevitable decline, someone ought to be doing it.

[1]We get indulgent from indulgens, the present participle of indulgere “be kind; yield, concede, be complaisant; give oneself up to, be addicted,”
[2] As a discipline, I try to limit myself to one Hitler reference per essay, but the similarities of Hitler’s case against the Weimar Republic and Trump’s case against the deep state are startling.
[3] Without any question, the most cited is Madison’s justly famous essay #10 in the Federalist Papers.
[4] This is lucidly clear in states that have only one member of the House of Representatives, and therefore have three state-wide races. Two of the winners go to the Senate and one to the House.
[5] This is a little complicated. The voters have divided themselves into Us and Them and have divided their leaders into Ours and Theirs. But among the leaders, the priority of Us and Them returns. No one says Ours and Theirs about constituents unless there is a federal grant to be administered.
[6] It was only the suggestion that humanity might arrive at a glorious and well-earned achievement by 2100 that made the panel care at all whether humanity survived. They thought it would be a shame to lose zebras, but humans? Not really worth saving.

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
This entry was posted in Politics, Sustainability and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.